Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Audrey A-muse-d Me

Audrey, Wait! by Robin Benway
4Q 4P; J/S (Gr. 9+, language and a few sexual references)

If you're looking for a fun book that will make you laugh, this is the one to grab. It's one of my favorites of the year. (I know, I've been saying that a lot lately. What can I say? A lot of really good books came out in the fall/winter of 2008!)

When Audrey breaks up with her boyfriend Evan, she expects that he'll be hurt. But she doesn't expect that he'll ask her if she'll still come to hear his band that night, and she doesn't expect that his band will debut a new song that night -- a song about their break up called "Audrey, Wait!" The absolute last thing she expects, though, is that that song will become a huge hit and make her famous. How horribly embarrassing! She could kill Evan!

Suddenly, everywhere she goes, people are staring, pointing, and taking pictures. Everywhere she goes, she hears, "That's Audrey! She's the one that song is about!" For crying out loud, kids are cutting school to go to her school to see her! They're lining up to see her at the Scooper Dooper (doubly embarrassing, since it's the suckiest afterschool job a girl could have). They're even writing about her on message boards on the web! They're blaming her for the breakup, even though Evan was so wrapped up in himself that she could tell him her cat was on fire, and he'd just say, "Cool. So, we've got a gig on Friday night." They don't even know her, but suddenly what she wears starts fashion trends. (And then, of course, people start snarking about how out of style she is!) It's crazy! They're crazy! And it's all driving Audrey crazy.

Of course, there are some perks. She goes to a concert and gets invited upstairs to the VIP section. She even makes out with the lead singer of one of her favorite bands. But um...that doesn't work out so well, actually. To put it mildly.

People are sending her free stuff, too. What girl wouldn't want free cosmetics? Or use of a really cool BMW? Who wouldn't want to star in her own reality show? Her best friend Victoria thinks it's all great and thinks Audrey is nuts for not wanting to take advantage of everything she's being offered. But Victoria's not the one everyone's looking at. Victoria's not the one that the paparazzi are chasing. It's not Victoria's love life that's suffering.

Oh, did I forget to mention James? James is one of those guys who's really easy to overlook. He's tall, geeky, and waaaaaay too into his job at the Scooper Dooper. He's a dork. At least, that's what Audrey thinks at first. But on second thought, dorks are surprisingly cute. Hot, even. And...whoa! Surprisingly good kissers. If they could just get a few minutes alone somewhere a little more romantic than the freezer of the Scooper Dooper. Just one more reason that fame stinks! Because if there's one thing that Audrey doesn't want to wait for, it's another kiss from James.

Quotes for your reading pleasure:

...But it wasn't all bad, of course. I mean, I had loved him, I really had. There were better times, the quiet moments when no one was talking and even our breath was the same, rising and falling under our tent of blankets like we were made to breathe with each other, for each other. It's funny how bed and pillows and covers can change a conversation. Words turn quiet and you mean more and say less. It's like you can build your own little world, Population 2.
Evan would play with my hair and wrap it over his wrist and reel me toward him until our lips touched. They were small moments but I could only hold them like water in my hands before he was slipping away, pulled back by melodies or friends or rehearsals, leaving my hands empty and my heart too full to hold alone.

Victoria paused and I could tell she was trying not to smile. "Did you just say 'frolic'?"
"Is it not a word?"
"Who the hell says 'frolic'?"
I spun the lock on my locker and waited for it to stick like it always did on 33. "I say frolic," I told her. "And more people should."
"They should say frolic or actually frolic?"

(Audrey, needing something to keep her hands and mind occupied during school so she can pretend not to notice the staring or hear kids calling "Audrey, wait!" in the halls, has braided her hair in lots and lots of tiny little braids.)
[Victoria] was giving me the fish eye. "What's up with your hair?"
"Oh, um..." I reached up and fingered a braid. "Nervous habit."
"It's sort of like Bob Marley meets Pippi Longstocking."
"That's not a compliment, is it?"
"Hell, no."

"Audrey." Now Victoria was using her please-don't-f**k-with-me-or-so-help-me-God-you-will-regret-it voice. (She's gonna make an awesome mom one day.) "Get over here and talk to her. She's a reporter, not a Dementor."

(Audrey's parents are setting some new ground rules, for her own safety, since Audrey's fame is getting her a lot of unwanted attention.)
"We're not trying to ruin your life, you know."
"Yeah, I know."
"Because if we ruin your life, then you're going to be one of those kids that lives in the den and never moves out, and your father and I have plans to retire someday. It's not in our best interest to ruin your life. We'd like to see Tahiti."

If kissing Simon had been like wildfire, kissing James was something smaller and stronger. It was birthday and prayer candles, ones made for good thoughts and strong hopes and wishes and promises.

I grabbed her by her hoodie strings. "Victoria," I hissed. "We kissed."
That stopped her short. "Who kissed?"
"We did."
"We did?"
"No! James and me, in the freezer at work last night!"
[several lines skipped]
Victoria squealed with delight. "I knew it! I knew it! Oh, can I do the I-told-you-so dance? Please? I'm so good at it."

I loved Audrey. You have to admire her determination not to let the fact that everyone else thinks she's famous/special affect the way she lives her life. She's also got personality to spare. She definitely gave off an "I'd enjoy knowing her" vibe. I also loved Victoria and the girls' relationship. It felt real. I also liked Victoria's boyfriend Jonah and the dynamics between the three of them. James starts out a little pale in comparison, but he comes into his own in the latter half of the book. I enjoyed his sense of humor and liked him for being able to roll with the punches of Audrey's fame. And it's also a welcome change that Audrey likes and respects her parents and vice versa. (And hey, they're funny too!) In other words, these are characters who feel like someone you not only could know, but would like to know, in a situation that is absolutely believable, if you just squint a little and cock your head at the right angle. Audrey, Wait!, you rock.

(I can't tag this as BBYA yet, but it has been nominated. I'll eat my hat if it doesn't make the final list.)

Friday, December 05, 2008

Liberty for All?

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
5Q 3P; Audience: M/J

By all rights, Isabel and her sister should be free. That's what it said in Miss Mary Finch's will. But Miss Finch's nephew refuses to believe Isabel or even to read the will. To him, Isabel and Ruth aren't girls, they're money in his pocket. To their new owners, Master and Mistress Lockton, they are hands, feet, and strong backs. They certainly aren't people.

It is particularly galling to be a slave when all around you the talk is of liberty, freedom, and independence. In 1776, those words were on every American's lips, though some spoke them with passion and desire and others said them with scorn and fury. Isabel and Ruth are caught in the middle of the battle, in more ways than one. The Locktons are Loyalists, true to the British Crown and up to their eyeballs in plots to bring the upstart Patriots to their knees. Curzon, a slave in a Patriot household, coerces Isabel into spying for the rebels. It is the Patriots, he tells her, who will give the slaves their freedom. If she throws in her lot with them, the liberty she craves will be hers. It is not an easy decision. The Locktons are not kind masters. If she spies and is caught, she will pay in ways too horrible to imagine. She isn't concerned only, or even primarily, with herself. Ruth is only five and prone to fits. If anything happens to Isabel, who will care for and protect Ruth? Still, Isabel burns with the desire to be free. It is worth taking the risk.

With the stakes are so high, it is all the more crushing when Isabel is forced to realize that the Patriots' passion for liberty is limited. Despite their fine talk and promises, the freedom they seek does not extend to slaves. They will not help her, and they will not protect her. Has she put her life and her sister's in jeopardy for nothing?


It is easy to understand why this book was nominated for the National Book Award (Teen category). It is beautifully written. Anderson excels in both character and plot, and her writing is graceful and compelling. Isabel is feisty, strong, loving, rebellious, and determined. She is often afraid but always courageous. She's no paragon, which makes her seem all the more real. Mistress Lockton and Lady Seymour are two sides of a coin, one loathsome and one as good as the times allow her to be, and both evoked visceral responses. Images of Curzon stay with me, too, as I picture him first cocksure and confident and then diminished by betrayal and circumstances. Because these characters are so vivid, even readers who are neither fans of historical fiction nor interested in the historical period will be swept up in Isabel's story. Anderson has the wonderful ability to drop nuggets of information into her story in a way that never seems forced or obtrusive. I knew New York was important strategically, but I didn't realize what a hot bed of Loyalists it was or that a great fire destroyed much of the city. I certainly didn't know about the enticements both sides offered to slaves and indentured servants in order to coerce their support, nor how often those promises proved false. This book does, of course, present those promises from Isabel's point of view, and certainly not every army officer (or founding father) consciously
used slaves' desire for freedom to their own advantage (consciously being the operative word here), with no personal regard for the slaves themselves. But Chains brought home to me forcefully and movingly the hope and heartbreak of having liberty so enticingly close, only to have it snatched away, as well as the irony of promising "liberty...for all" and giving it only to some.

I am glad that we will be hearing more about Isabel and Curzon in the future. I am not ready to leave them behind.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Of Butterflies and Cults

The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante
3(.5)Q 3P; Audience: J/S

Agnes, Honey, and Benny know no other way of life than the one they have at Mount Blessing. Agnes wants no other life. Honey is desperate to leave. But nobody leaves Mount Blessing. Not without Emmanuel's permission, anyhow. Everything at Mount Blessing runs according to Emmanuel's wishes. He is, after all, as close to God as a human being can get. It is Emmanuel everyone desperately tries to please. It is Emmanuel who rewards, and it is Emmanuel who punishes.

The day Nana Pete arrives for an unexpected visit is a day that Emmanuel has punished Honey and Agnes, leaving welts on their bodies and bruises on their souls. Agnes is agonized because she has, once again, fallen short of the example of her namesake, Saint Agnes. She strives to be a saint, but she all too often sins. Honey isn't agonized. She's outraged. All she did was kiss a boy. Is that such a crime? Is it truly deserving of the welts and the "HARLOT" scrawled across her back? Nobody speaks of the Regulation Room, where all of this punishment takes place. Nobody, that is, until Benny lets something slip to a horrified Nana Pete, who resolves to take her grandchildren and Honey off the commune before they can be harmed again. But before she has the chance to put any sort of plan into action, Benny is in a horrible accident. Instead of allowing an ambulance to be called, Emmanuel declares that he will pray over Benny and thus heal him. His followers have no doubt that he can do this, but Nana Pete is appalled. Now she is even more determined to get the children out. Honey is only too happy to help. Soon the five leave the Mount Blessing compound, four of them for the very first time.

Agnes is horrified and furious when she learns that Nana Pete has no intention of bringing them back. What will Emmanuel say? What will he do? Leaving Mount Blessing without his blessing...nothing he's ever done to them in the Regulation Room before will touch what will happen when he finally tracks them down and brings them back. Even worse, outside of Mount Blessing, wickedness is everywhere. It's in the music, it's in the clothing, it's in the food, it's on the television. How can one ever hope to achieve a saintly life when evil is everywhere you look? Honey doesn't see the world that way at all. She is rapturous in the freedom she now has, away from Emmanuel's ridiculous restrictions. Though she misses Winky, her guardian, and the butterfly garden they both tend, she can only look forward now. Being in a world where it's not a sin to think your own thoughts or kiss a boy...that's her kind of heaven on earth.

Neither Agnes nor Honey expects what they find at the end of this road trip, which brings them to Nana Pete's daughter, the woman whose name is not allowed spoken at Mound Blessing. Amid tragedy, secrets are revealed, new understandings are made, and faith is restored and redefined.

Much of this book is very well done. Told from both Agnes's and Honey's perspectives, the two voices are distinct and believable. Agnes's struggle to be as saint-like as possible could have made her a tiresome, unlikable character. But her honest faith and her despair at never being able to be reach the level of goodness she strives for makes her a sympathetic character, though many readers will probably share Honey's frustration that she simply does not understand how brainwashed she has been by Emmanuel. More readers will probably empathize with Honey, who has never succumbed to Emmanuel's magnetism. Honey wants freedom, friendship, beauty, and love, and she knows that the world outside of Mount Blessing offers her those things. The interactions between these two life-long friends as they negotiate their different views on their lives so far and their lives in the future is particularly well done. Both girls are allowed to score valid points as they explore their feelings about religion and faith and what it means to believe.

The nuances and strengths of other parts of the book made it quite disappointing when Galante settled for a too-easy solution to one of the book's main questions (and therefore, one of its main dilemmas). When I got the first hint of where she was heading, I actually groaned and said aloud to a lunchroom companion that I couldn't believe she was going there. This one plot element weakened the book as a whole, rather like a wobbly leg makes a table less than sturdy. Though still fine to look at, the table doesn't support all the weight it was designed to bear. She handled the ambiguities of the faith discussion so well that I was surprised to find her settling for the easy way out in this situation.

While this won't be everyone's cup of tea and I don't expect it to fly off the shelf, I think it will have an audience. I would not be surprised to hear a teen recommending it to another, and I can easily see it being used in book discussion groups.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Another Reading Roundup

I've got five books on my pile to write up, and two of them have been waiting for two or three weeks. So I'm just going to put up a couple of quick impressions about a couple of them, just to clear the pile a bit.

Bonechiller by Graham McNamee
4Q 4P; Audience: M/J/S

I love booktalking Acceleration, and although it's a very different kind of book, Hate You is also a powerful read. So I've been waiting for a new McNamee book for years. Though this one didn't captivate me as much, it was still worth the wait. McNamee always tells a great story, and there's always more to it than just what's on the surface.

Ever since his mother died, Danny and his father have been moving from place to place, trying to escape their memories. In cold, desolate Harvest Cove, Danny winds up trying to escape from more than that. Deep in the most isolated reaches of Canada, this small Army outpost town holds a terror that most people don't even realize exists. Danny encounters it on a night that was already unsettling: he has just witnessed an arson/murder. His mind reeling and his nerves already taut as he walks home in the pitch dark, it takes him a little while to realize that he's being followed. At first it's just a feeling. Then he catches something (but what?) out of the corner of his eye. Maybe it's just a plastic bag blowing in the wind. Maybe it's just a dog. He tries to shrug it off. But then he hears the growl. It's a growl so deep it hurts his ears. And then he sees it. This is no plastic bag, no dog. But whatever it is, it's big. And it's fast. It is, in fact, a huge beast right out of legend, with teeth and claws eight inches long. Danny is sure he's a goner when he falls into a ditch and the beast catches up to him. But no - - the only mark he has to show for his meeting with the beast is a blue dot on the back of his hand. A fang mark? As the days go by, Danny realizes that no, the blue dot isn't the only mark the beast has left on him. His body temperature drops and he can always feel the beast watching and calling him. He can't sleep. The beast has invaded his dreams. He knows the beast will be the end of him. It's just a question of when.

Danny is not the only teen affected. One boy in their community has already succumbed to the call of the beast. Danny's friend Howie has also been bitten, and his symptoms are even worse than Danny's. Danny, Howie, Howie's psycho brother Pike (the aforementioned arsonist), and Danny's girlfriend Ash need to know what's going on. A little research reveals that dozens of local teens have disappeared over the years. Though common wisdom has it that they were runaways, the details point toward something else entirely, something that Danny and Howie know all too well. The beast has been luring teens to their death for thousands of years. What are the odds that Danny and Howie will break the cycle? 1000-1?

McNamee generally builds the tension well. Some readers may be irritated when the focus switches from Danny's present to Danny's memories of his mother and how her absence has affected his life. Others will recognize that these sections add to Danny's sense of isolation and that the emotional coldness he's been left with mirrors his physical coldness. Most readers will also appreciate the relationship between Danny and Ash, especially as it often adds a welcome note of humor that breaks the tension. In the beginning, much is made of Pike's mental stability or lack thereof, so I expected it to play a bigger role in the story and for things to play out a little differently as a result. Despite any quibbles I may have, I think Bonechiller will be popular, particularly with teenage boys. It's a book best read straight through, preferably with a warm blanket wrapped around you.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nothing is Impossible, But Impossible is Somethng

Impossible by Nancy Werlin
5Q 4P; Audience: J/S

My familiarity with the folk song Scarborough Fair comes via the plaintive, hauntingly harmonized Simon and Garfunkel version. I like the song and usually sing along to the chorus whenever I hear it. But Impossible made me realize I'd never really listened to it. It's surprising enough to realize what's being sung under the melody, but how is it that I never wondered about the impossible tasks the singer is asking of his lover? Nancy Werlin is a far better listener than I, and she did wonder, which led her to write this book. What she came up with as an explanation makes for a rich, romantic read.

Though she doesn't yet know it, Lucy Scarborough's family has long been cursed. It is not wise for mortal women to spurn the advances of an elven lord. The price Lucy's long-ago ancestress paid for doing just that was madness, and that is the price all her descendants will pay until one of them successfully performs the impossible tasks the elven lord demands of them in retribution. Lucy doesn't realize the significance of Scarborough Fair, the song she has always associated with her mother. She only knows the fear and embarrassment she feels when Miranda comes around, never knowing when her mother will burst out into a tirade or publicly humiliate her. She does not realize that this song is Miranda's attempt to tell her how to break the curse.

Some girls would have found the stigma of an insane mother too much to bear. But Miranda has always had the loving support of her foster parents, Leo and Soledad. She has good friends, too, particularly next-door neighbor Zach and Sarah. Lucy needs that support system when she unexpectedly gets pregnant, thereby setting the curse into action. It is not until she finds a long-lost diary that she truly understands what that curse is: she will have a child before she turns eighteen, and then she will go mad. And her only way of saving herself and her child is if she can solve the riddles of Scarborough Fair.

I don't have anything profound to write about regarding my reactions to the book. I simply found myself utterly caught up in Lucy's story. I liked these people. Lucy's no superhero fantasy creature. She's just an ordinary girl you can't help rooting for. I admired her strength of will, her determination, and her courage in the face of a fearsome future. And while it's certainly not a ground-breaking move in a novel for teens to have two neighbors and former best friends fall in love, the development of the relationship between Lucy and Zach was deeply satisfying, even for someone who doesn't typically read romance novels. Zach is probably a little too good to be true, but he's also the kind of guy who should be the illustration accompanying "love/lover". This book is masterfully crafted and beautifully written, with characters who are ordinary yet memorable. It can be read on a surface level, but it can also be read more deeply. It is one of my favorites of the year.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Bonds Between Us

Absolute Brightness by James Lecesne
5Q 3P; Audience: J/S

As far as Phoebe is concerned, it's bad enough that Mom is letting Leonard, their not-really-related cousin come to live with them. The family is already messed up enough, what with Dad living with his girlfriend and Daphne unwilling to spend time with anyone but herself. Who needs an interloper to mess things up even more? It's not like he's old enough for his friends to be potential boyfriend material. But Leonard isn't just there. He's weird. What thirteen-year-old boy wears pink and lime-green plaid Capri pants and platform sandals, pierces his ears, and sings "These Are a Few of My Favorite Things" out loud? Not only is Leonard clearly gay, everything about him seems to invite ridicule. Phoebe and her sister Daphne quickly decide that Leonard is on his own.

As the weeks go by, Phoebe can't help but notice that Leonard doesn't seem to mind this. He's almost always smiling and optimistic. Taunts seem to slide over and around him without him ever noticing or reacting. In fact, Leonard seems to go out of his way to connect with people, whether they want him to or not. He's friendly to everyone, even the guys who steal from him. And even though his own personal style is sadly lacking, he has a knack for helping other people choose clothes, hair styles, and make up that not only change their look completely, but sometimes actually revitalize lives. (It rather rankles Phoebe that she's the only one he never tries to change. It bothers her even more when he finally tells her why.)

Phoebe can't afford to let Leonard get too close to her. He sees too much, and he's too weird. So she doesn't truly realize just how much of an impact he's made on the family and on her in particular until he disappears. As the days go by with no sign of Leonard, Phoebe is consumed with finding out what happened. Somebody knows, and she needs to find out who.

It is, in fact, Phoebe who stumbles (more or less literally) on the clues that will provide the answers. But those answers only bring up more questions. Why do we do the things we do? What is mercy? What is justice? Does love automatically mean forgiveness? What makes the bonds between us, and what do we do when they are broken?


I don't have (yet, anyway), a list of my Top Ten books of the year, but if I did, this one would be on it. This is another book where the actual writing (turn of phrase, character descriptions, voice, etc.) was as strong a pull for me as the plot. There were moments I paused just to appreciate how something was phrased, and yet that never pulled me out of the book. I also found myself really appreciating Lecesne's ability to write about (and as) a character who isn't always very nice, yet at the same time make her vulnerable and appealing. Similarly, while the reader can understand why Phoebe finds Leonard embarrassing and odd, it's also obvious that Leonard has special qualities that anyone would appreciate in a friend, had they given him a chance to be one.

I do think that Daphne's storyline is somewhat underdeveloped. When Phoebe mentioned (pretty much in passing) that Daphne had changed a lot a few years ago, I wondered what had caused that change. We do eventually get an explanation, and there is a payoff, but I felt a need for more between Phoebe and Daphne. This is a BIG THING, and it feels unfinished. I had a hard time believing that Phoebe would back away from making Daphne talk about it with her.

There were a lot of passages that caught my attention for various reasons. This is merely a sampling. (If you're looking for quotes for a book report, trust me, you'd be far better off reading the book yourself and finding the quotes that are meaningful to you. These quotes do not necessarily represent the most important themes of the book.)

I read this thing all about how the whole world is actually a pulsing, glowing web of invisible fiber optics that connect one person to another...it said the stronger and truer the bond between two people, the brighter the strand becomes. The more strands, the brighter the overall glow.

I loved these character descriptions:

[Ms. D, the drama teacher] had a small head and tiny features that were all crowded into the center of her face as if each one wanted to take center stage. Her dyed-black hair was cut in a pixie style with mental-hospital bangs, and she always wore bright-red lipstick and a crip, white, man-tailored shirt. If she happened to wear a skirt (a rarity), it somehow looked, on her, like a pair of pants. Her shoes were formidable and could be heard as clear as Frankenstein's when she walked.

Peggy Brinkerhoff was a sweet-faced woman with a gray perm and piercing pale-blue eyes. She wasn't the type to wear high heels, but she was a convincing argument for their invention. In her stocking feet she was barely five feet tall. If it hadn't been for her voice - a voice that seemed to crack and whine and cut through glass - people might not have paid attention to her.

The yearning and sense of loss here is almost palpable:

And now years later, sitting with [Dad], this time in the little apartment he shared with his girlfriend, all I could think of was "quote, unquote." Perhaps what I always wanted from Dad was for him to fill in the quotation marks with some truth about himself or about life or about how two people who have lived their whole lives together could end up sitting opposite each other at a turquoise table on a Monday evening with nothing to say. Had it always been that way? I wondered. I couldn't tell. But this, I thought as I sat there with him, this I will remember.

Regrets, she has a few:

Of course, Leonard wasn't the kind of hero who saved lives; he had never walked into a burning building or battled terrorists on their native soil; and notwithstanding the restyling of Mrs. Barchevski's wig after she lost her hair to chemo, he hadn't created a particular moment of glory that would survive in anyone's memory long after he was gone. Nothing like that. He had simply been courageous enough to be himself in the face of everything that had tried to persuade him to be something else. Despite the fact that I was unwilling to recognize it when he was alive, Leonard's determination to live his life was a desperate act of daring worth of note, if not deserving of actual medals and a VFW picnic.

I think most of us can relate:

But do any of us know what we're doing?...Isn't this rightness, this I-know-what-I'm-doing attitude in each one of us, isn't it just something figured into our DNA so that we won't always be looking over our shoulders, second-guessing and generally freaking ourselves out, because we don't know *anything*? Could it be that survival...depends on the belief that we *think* we know what we're doing? And whether some unseen, all-knowing and omnipresent God has installed this trait into our hard drive or it's the result of a long and drawn-out process of Darwinian natural selection, well, it hardly matters. Chances are that anyone will tell you that they know exactly what they're up to. But do they? Do they *ever*?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nuclear War or Just Plain Madness?

The Compound by S. A. Bodeen
3Q 3P; Audience: J

Imagine that you've just been told that a nuclear airhead strike has just been launched at the United States. Where would you go? What would you do? Fortunately, Eli doesn't have to wonder. His father has been preparing for this moment for years. He's built an underground compound for the family and stocked it with enough food and clothing to last fifteen years, long enough for the nuclear fallout to dissipate enough for safety. When the warning comes, the family is able to get to the shelter in time. All of the family except for their grandmother and Eli's twin, Eddy, that is.

Eli has known for years that Eddy is the good twin. He was the one that everyone liked and wanted to be around. Eli was the one the other kids accepted because he was Eddy's brother. Eli is the selfish one. He knows it's really his fault that Eddy and his grandmother didn't make it into the shelter, and he'll never forgive himself for that. Eli's pretty much decided that he won't love anyone anymore. He hasn't let anyone touch him in ages. He barely talks to his sisters (one older, one younger) and avoids his parents. He's angry and he hates everything about where he is and how they live.

The compound is stocked with everything a family could need: clothing in various sizes, plenty of books and music to keep them occupied, even computers and lessons so that they can continue with their schooling. It has plenty of food, too. Until it goes bad, that is. The animals die, too, due to poisoned feed. What looked like a fifteen-year food supply isn't going to last even half that long. That's why Eli won't go through that yellow door. He doesn't see how his mother and sisters can bear it. Because what's on the other side of that door -- the Supplements -- no. It doesn't even bear thinking of. It's too gruesome and sick to even contemplate.

Living in the shelter is hard on all of them. His little sister goes around talking in an English accent all the time, and his older sister doesn't talk much at all. His parents obviously get physically close, since his mother has been pregnant pretty much continuously in the six years or so they've been in the compound. But they don't seem to like each other much. His mother's okay. If Eli can bear to be around anyone, it would probably be her. But his father is getting stranger all the time. Sometimes he rushes around in a frenzy of energy, and other times he'll stay in bed for days. He controls everything they do. They're all just a little afraid of him. As it turns out, they should be.

It's not until Eli accidentally stumbles on a computer meant for Eddy that the horror of his situation starts to become clear. Because unlike all the other computers in the compound, this one connects to the Internet. How can there be an Internet? Wasn't the world destroyed? Apparently not. And when Eli actually gets on the Internet himself and sees what he sees...well, then he begins to question everything that's happened in the past six years.

Could it possibly be that his father was lying to them all the time? And if that's true, what possible reason could he have for keeping them locked up in this compound? Is reason the wrong word to use in connection with his father? What do you do when you are locked in an underground compound with an insane man who is the only person who knows the key to getting out of it?

Though not a perfect story, this is still a book that will hold readers' interest and have them holding their breaths waiting to find out just how twisted a mind can get and whether it's possible to outwit a crazy man.

Monday, November 10, 2008

This and That

This is a great time of year if you're a book lover. I've read several in the past month (already blogged about) that were terrific reads. In the past week, I've read three more that were also excellent, along with a couple that didn't reach that height but were still enjoyable. I hope to post about them all very soon, but I'm feeling swamped! And I've got a dozen more on my to-be-read list, several of which I have very high hopes for. It's a feast of books!

One of the books that just came in that I won't be blogging about separately is The Sorcerer of the North by John Flanagan, book 5 in the Ranger's Apprentice series. I enjoyed this one every bit as much as I enjoyed the rest in the series. But arggh!!! It ends smack in the middle of the adventure! But it is good to see Alyss again. She got lost in the shuffle during the first book. From the looks of things, she's going to be sticking around this time.

A shout out to Lauren Myracle and her fans who have made their way here because of a post on her site. Thanks for visiting. I hope you like what you see and come back for more. And on that same note, I've just got to say that it's a thrill when I discover an author has visited my site and appreciated what I wrote about his/her book. (It's not nearly as much fun when the author doesn't like what I wrote and writes to tell me so, but fair's fair. If I can have my say, they can have theirs.)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Three Little Words - But Not the Obvious Ones

Three Little Words: a Memoir by Ashley Rhodes-Courter
3Q 3P; Audience: M/J/S/Adult

There are books you read that make you say "There but for the grace of God go I." This is one of those books. It will make you angry at points. It will make you cry at others. Ultimately, it will make you cheer in admiration of a strong, intelligent girl who hasn't let a hard knock life keep her down. "I love you" may be her three little words now, but they were a long time coming, and they were not the ones her journey began with.

Before she was eighteen years old, Ashley Rhodes-Courter had

  • 73 child welfare administrators

  • 44 child welfare caseworkers

  • 19 foster parents

  • 23 attorneys

  • 17 psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists

  • 5 Guardian ad Litem staff

  • 4 judges

  • 4 court personnel

  • 3 abuse registry workers

  • 2 primary case workers

  • 1 Guardian ad Litem

She also had, eventually,

  • 1 man

  • 1 woman

  • 2 young men

who would give her a home and a family and change her life forever. But all those foster parents and caseworkers came first.

Ashley's story begins with a very young mother who had an unerring instinct for choosing guys who were bad news. Drugs, prostitution, and an inability to properly care for her children inevitably followed. As a result, Ashley and her brother Luke (Ashley has dim memories of another "secret" brother who died) were shunted from foster home to foster home, beginning when Ashley was around three years old. Ashley's account of their many placements makes it abundantly and poignantly clear how badly the foster care system needs to be overhauled. One of their first placements was with her grandfather, which might be considered a good thing if he hadn't had multiple brushes with the law, substance abuse and anger management problems, and a history of mistreating his own children. Though he was not abusive to Ashley and Luke, it was his partner, Adele, who truly cared for them. Although there were times that her grandfather frightened her, this was a home where Ashley felt loved and mostly safe. That was taken away from her the day her grandfather was shot, and it would be years before Ashley ever had that feeling again. The foster care placements that followed left Ashley in the care of people who were at best indifferent and at worst child abusers.

As appalling as it is to read about the abuse and neglect Ashley and Luke suffered in the foster care system, it is equally apalling to realize that they were placed in these homes by people who were supposed to be looking out for their best interests and failed utterly to do so. In one instance, they were placed illegally and were lost in the system for a couple of years. In another, Ashley was placed in a home when the police were actively investigating allegations of child molestation against the foster father. (Though he never abused her, she was exposed to pornographic movies.) In the most horrific example, Ashley, Luke, and several other children were fostered in a home where they were mistreated in a variety of ways. Despite telling social workers and other invesigators on more than one occasion about being beaten and being made to swallow hot sauce and squat in awkward positions for hours, caseworkers always chose to believe the foster parents' claims that the children were making these things up. Ashley was eventually removed from this placement and put into a group home. (She later filed a class action lawsuit against the couple.)

Though Ashley was eventually adopted, the damage from her early experiences is made abundantly clear as Ashley describes her difficulty settling in to her new family. She'd seen too much to believe it when her new family told her they loved her and that she would always have a home with them. Lots of adopted kids were sent back to the group home, and she was certain that that day would come for her, too. It took months for her to learn to trust, and even longer for her to allow herself to love, and it took a lot of patience, steadfastness, honesty, and caring on the Coulters' part. Now that that point has been reached, Ashley is sharing her story of where she's been, where she is, and where she intends to go. With her spirit and intelligence, that will clearly be far.

Fans of Torey Hayden, Dave Pelzer, and Jeannette Walls may find this book to their liking.

Peeled: Getting to the Core of the Truth

Peeled by Joan Bauer
3.5Q, 3P; Audience: J/S

Banesville, NY has a problem. But not everyone agrees on what that problem is. Some people think it's the hard economic times the town is going through after two bad harvests in a row. Some people think it's the strange things happening in and around the old Ludlow mansion. And some people think it's the way the town newspaper, The Bee, is using those events to create a climate of fear and unease in the community. Hildy Biddle is in the latter camp.

Hildy is a reporter for the school newspaper, The Core, and she and her fellow reporters are disgusted by The Bee. A newspaper is supposed to be about facts, not about fear-mongering. But the Bee seems fixed on the latter rather than the former. Someone is posting signs saying things like "Danger to all ye who enter" and "You Didn't Think It Was Safe, Did You ?" on the old Ludlow House property. Instead of trying to get to the bottom of who is posting them and why, The Bee is writing about ghosts, haunted houses, and how they're making property values decline. When the body of a man is found in a grove of trees on the Ludlow property, the Bee proclaims it a murder, though the police have refused to comment or confirm that. By the time the truth comes out, fear has gripped the community. People are afraid to leave their homes at night, they're looking over their shoulders during the day, and some are even talking about moving out of town.

Hildy's only in high school, and she has better journalism skills than the Bee's reporters. Where are their facts? Who are their sources? Why aren't they investigating and finding out what's really going on? Well, if they won't do it, then she and the other Core reporters will have to. With the acerbic help of Baker Polton, a former reporter and managing editor of a respected newspaper, they go after the story. They get the facts, and they report them. People begin to listen. There's definitely more going on in Banesville than meets the eye. But some adults don't take kindly to the idea of teens showing them up. The principal shuts The Core down, saying the school system can't afford the lawsuits The Bee and others are threatening. Hildy is incensed and discouraged. What happened to freedom of the press? But what can they do? They're only teens. They have no power. Or do they? Maybe a school-run paper isn't the only way to get the real story out there.

Joan Bauer is noted for her strong female characters and her ability to write with humor about serious subjects. This book is no different in that regard. While many books for teens focus on the main character's social life, Bauer's main characters usually have their eyes on the wider world as well. Hildy is certainly interested in her friends and boys, but they have to ride shotgun while she focuses on protecting the First Amendment and ensuring that the citizens of Banesville get the truth, not manipulated. Hildy won't be fobbed off with a glib answer. An equally strong aspect of Bauer's writing is her ability to create dynamic, believable relationships between characters. In particular, scenes with Baker Polton crackle with energy. Her scenes with her cousin are much lower key, but the affection and understanding between them, despite their very different personalities, is clear in every one of them. The growth of her relationship with Zach is sweetly delineated, and Minska is every bit as inspiring to the reader as she is to Hildy.

So, with all of those positives, why am not giving this book a glowing review? As good as Bauer is in creating three dimensional main characters, others are far less believable, having little or no shading. And in a realistic fiction book, is it realistic that only a handful of teens and senior citizens are suspicious and willing to look beyond the surface, while most of the rest of the population is so easily frightened by tales of ghostly sightings and sensationalistic reporting? I found it hard to swallow that most of the adult population in town is so gullible and/or quick to cave in to bullying behavior, and I think teen readers will be equally skeptical. There's a fine line between making teens the heroes of a story and making them superheroes, and I think this time Bauer stepped a bit over that line. Hope Was Here did a better job finding the balance point, showing teens playing a very important role in galvanizing a community without making it seem as though they were pretty much the only ones aware that it needed galvanizing in the first place. I think a few more Bakers and Minskas were needed in this one, for believability's sake.

(This post was begun a month ago and finished today. If it gets buried beneath my more recently written posts, that's why.)

Friday, October 31, 2008

Don't Read This One in the Dark of Night

Bliss by Lauren Myracle
4Q 4P; Audience: J/S

I'm actually not quite finished with this book, but it's Halloween, and that makes it the right day to post about it. A big part of the reason I haven't finished it yet is because I read a lot at night, especially once I'm in bed for the night. Well, I've gotten to the point in this book where I'm frankly afraid to read it within an hour or two of trying to fall asleep. The tension has been building and building, and I'm expecting a Carrie moment any time now. I'm a little twitchy and I'm discovering it's pretty hard to read when you're trying to avert your eyes from the page because you're dreading what you're about to see. In other words, Lauren Myracle has done a terrific job setting her scene.

Bliss IntheMorningDew has recently arrived in Atlanta to live with her grandmother. It's a far cry from the hippie commune she grew up in in California. Going to school is a new thing for her, let alone a preppy private school. But she actually finds it surprisingly easy to fit in. She even makes friends quickly, leading her to wonder which two of these girls might be the ones that her psychic friend from the commune told her she foresaw in her future. Even though Flying V warned her that the vibes aren't entirely positive, Bliss isn't at all thrown. Bliss herself has had occasional contacts with the other side, and they don't frighten her. No, Bliss is determined to make the most of her new situation, and making friends will be a welcome part of that. Flying V saw her caught between two girls, but doesn't that just mean she'll have at least two friends? Isn't that a good thing?

Bliss's commune upbringing has produced a strange blend of innocence and knowingness in her. She's not unfamiliar with sex, Grateful Dead concerts, and 'shrooms, but she has been sheltered in other ways. She expects life to be as uncomplicated as it is in Mayberry with Andy Taylor and Opie. It's not. Moving from the commune to Atlanta is eye-opening. She's grown up side by side with people of different races and it's never been important before. But Atlanta has the Klan and the school has one token black student ("so they can't force integration on us"). Everyone likes Lawrence - as long as he doesn't try to get too familiar. It makes no sense to her. Why is it such a big deal that he's black? But it clearly is a big deal, as becomes apparent when she catches Lawrence and Sarah Lynn, the most popular girl in the freshman class, in a clinch. Bliss also doesn't know anything about cliques and social groups, so she sees no problem in befriending Sandy, the school outcast. While her other friends don't exactly give her a hard time about that, it's clear they disapprove. She's okay with that. People with her background don't worry much about what others think. But Bliss has no clue how much danger she's inviting into her life when she ignores her new society's conventions.

Bliss's new school has a history. Rumor has it that a girl who lived there when the school was a convent jumped from a third-floor window of one of the campus buildings. "Some say you can still see the blood stains on the pavement" a student mentions casually. Bliss's sympathy for the poor girl turns to something else entirely when she realizes that she hears a voice...the girl's voice?...in her head whenever she passes by that building. And she does not like what she hears. The voice is insistent, demanding, and clearly evil.

Interspersed throughout are handwritten pages from S.L.L.'s journal. Just a little odd at first, the journal entries soon take a decidedly sinister tone. As we read on, it becomes clear who S.L.L. is and how her journal entries fit into Bliss's story. And that's when the creep factor started ratcheting up for me. Reading on and waiting for Bliss to catch on too has been like watching a mouse sniff its way to cheese and start to nibble. You know it has no idea that the cheese is attached to a trap that's about to snap its neck in two, and you want to look away before it gets caught. That the Tate-LaBianca murders committed by the Manson Family is a thread woven throughout the book does nothing to lessen this sense of dread. I don't have to finish the book to know that when the trap snaps, Bliss is going to be well and truly caught in it, and what happens next is not going to be pretty.

I have read that there is a link between this book and Myracle's Rhymes with Witches. If I'm not too unnerved when I finish this book, I'm going to have to check that one out. But I don't think I'm going to want to read that one late at night in the dark either!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Fair-y Trade Agreement

How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier
3Q 4P; Audience: M/J/S

Wouldn't it be great to have your own personal fairy? Just imagine, you could have a clothes-shopping fairy that always finds you the most fabulous outfits at bargain prices. Or you could have a loose change fairy and never have to beg parents or friends for a couple of dollars when you want a bottle of soda or a slice of pizza. Or you could have an every-boy-will-like-you-fairy, like Stupid-Name (aka Fiorenze). Now that would be a fairy worth having. Then Charlie wouldn't have to wonder if gorgeous new boy Steffi likes her or not. But no. ::sigh:: Charlie doesn't have a cool fairy like those. She has ::huge sigh:: a parking fairy. What good is a parking fairy when you're fourteen years old and can't drive? No good, that's how good. Sure, other people think your fairy is great. What does that get you? It gets you dragged to your parents' meetings and concerts so they can snag a great parking spot. Whee. Charlie is sick of her fairy, and she going to get rid of it if it's the last thing she does.

How do you get rid of a fairy? Well, one theory is that you sort of starve them to death - you simply refuse to do whatever it is that they do for you. So Charlie figures that if she never gets into a car, her fairy will never be able to do her parking thing. She'll get so bored that sooner or later, she'll give up and just go away. That's why Charlie is walking everywhere she goes. And that's why Charlie is always late these days. And that's why she is in such trouble. Charlie attends New Avalon Sports High, a school for teens seriously into sports. Sports are all about rules. Therefore, so is New Avalon High. One of those rules is you are never, ever to be late for class. Being late gets you demerits, demerits get you barred from playing on your team, and too many missed games gets you kicked out of school. Charlie needs to get rid of this parking fairy soon. And everything is going according to plan. Until...

Musings and whatnot

This is, simply put, a quick, light-hearted read. As Charlie might say, it's doss. You can't help but like Charlie and the rest of the characters. I think I might have had a crush on Steffi myself if I'd met him at fifteen. And I liked the fact that Stupid Name was something more than she appeared to be, and that Charlie could admit that. Heck, even the bad guy was fun to read about. I enjoyed the book a bit more knowing that Larbalestier was also poking a bit of fun at things she's discovered living a bi-continental life (she has homes in Australia and NYC). I also wonder if people ever eavesdrop on Larbalestier-Westerfeld conversations and think they're listening to a foreign language or something, since both husband and wife clearly delight in inventing new slang for their books! Anyhow, I'm going to enjoy recommending this book to teens who want to kick back with a book that'll make them smile.

It's kind of fun to think of what kind of fairy I'd like, if I lived in New Avalon and could have a fairy. Our Zora Ann used to have a never-get-lost fairy, and I sure could use one of those. But now that I have a GPS, I'm sort of covered there. So a fairy that could keep me organized or (bliss!) a fairy that would make my meals for me would be just fine by me. Check out Justine Larbalestier's blog for some fun reading about fairies others would choose.

(Bonus read: Extra chapters!)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Pieces of the Puzzle

4Q 3P; Audience: M/J

Frannie is devastated when her father dies. His house was a warm, comforting place, a place where she knew she'd always be understood. Her father saw the world through an artist's eyes, and he taught Frannie to see the art in everything. Her relationship with her mother isn't like that. Even her best friend doesn't get her the way her father did. That huge hole he's left behind - will she ever be able to fill it? It doesn't seem likely.

Her father left his house and its contents to her. It takes weeks before she's ready to face going back there, let alone choose which of his belongs to keep (as many as possible) and which to give away (not that, not that, definitely not that). It is in his studio ("It looks like he's just taken a break") that she makes her most significant find: a carved wooden box with Frances Anne carved on the top. Below her name is 1000. Inside the box are pieces of a handmade jigsaw puzzle. It must have been meant as a birthday gift for her. It is all the more precious because her father never planned ahead, and her birthday is weeks away. He'd been thinking about her.

Her father's death has sent Frannie into a significant depression. She pushes everyone away, including her best friend (who wants to listen to her talk about her new boyfriend when all Frannie can think about is how much she misses her father). All she wants to do is lie on the floor in her room and grieve. But the jigsaw puzzle calls to her. She takes it out and slowly begins to put it together.
Piece by piece, edge by edge, the picture slowly takes shape. It's a village. What village? Where is it? Frannie thinks she knows the answers, but she is in for more than one shock. The more she concentrates on the puzzle, the more real it seems to her. There are times she could swear she was actually inside the puzzle. Could that be? How could that possibly be?

Much to her dismay, Frannie doesn't get to spend all of her time locked in her room with her puzzle and her grief. Her mother has arranged a summer job for her. Something to keep her occupied. Something to keep her mind off death and dying. Something right up her alley: teaching arts and crafts at a summer camp. There is far more humor in this book than one might expect to find in a book about dealing with grief, and much of it comes from Frannie's experiences as a camp counselor. There are quirky campers, a dreamy co-counselor, and Frannie's unique take on how to make art with the under-ten crowd. Poison is a riveting subject, for instance. Wouldn't a collage of all the poisonous things in your home that look innocuous be eye-catching? Dishwashing detergent ("If swallowed...call a Poison Control Center"). Batteries ("May explode"). Toothpaste ("May be harmful if swallowed"). Mouthwash (ditto). Not surprisingly, Frannie's avant-garde art style raises a few eyebrows (parents) and gives rise to more than a few grins (the reader).

The dash of is-this-really-happening-or-is-she-a-little-crazy certainly will keep readers intrigued. Several well-placed pictures help underscore how important and omnipresent art is in Frannie's life and in her relationship with her father. And there's more depth here than may at first meet the eye. Using assembling a jigsaw puzzle as a metaphor for putting a life back together again after it falls apart works surprisingly well. Readers who enjoy fast-paced books may want to give this one a pass, but for those who like books that fold you in their arms and carry you gently away, it's a winner.

Quotes to give you a flavor of the book:

Do you know what it says on a tube of toothpaste? In small print? You have to read the small print because they never tell you anything scary in large print. Large print is what they want you to see. Here's what the large print says: FOR BEST RESULTS, SQUEEZE TUBE FROM THE BOTTOM AND FLATTEN AS YOU GO UP. But the important stuff is small. Tiny. If more than used for brushing is accidentally swallowed, get medical help or contact a Poison Control Center right away. You can die from toothpaste.

I've been going to Cobweb since kindergarten. Every week the school holds a meeting, its word for assembly, about world awareness. At the last one a doctor spoke about all the orphans in Africa who had lost their parents to AIDS. The purpose of these meetings is to raise more sensitive human beings, but all that sensitivity didn't stop Sukie Jameson from bragging about her breasts or kids from staring at me when I returned to school. I stared right back...Perhaps they expected a mark on my forehead, like an outline of a man with line through him, kind of like a traffic warning sign.

All the counselors look to be my age. Well, I look old for my age in my opinion, because of my awesome maturity and possible air of tragedy...One counselor, a guy with a buzz cut, is doing push-ups...I guess you need to be in good shape to handle a bunch of kids under the age of ten. "Hey, I'm Simon, who are you?" He jogs a circle around me..."I'm Frannie." I give him a Mona Lisa smile...Jenna [her best friend] and I practiced Mona Lisa smiles in front of the mirror. When someone bugged us at school, we would say, Give him (or her) the MLS*. With the MLS, it's not clear if you're smiling, being secretive, or, in the case of me with Simon right now, acting superior. "Frannie," he repeats. "Frannie-bo-banny." Forget the MLS. A total snub is in order. (pp. 121-123)

(* I confess that I found Frannie's use of initials instead of whole words frustrating at times. I couldn't ever remember what ENP was supposed to stand for, but it was used repeatedly to describe another counselor. Turns out, I discovered just now, that it's an "Extremely neat person". Okay.)

I won't quote more, but I hope it's clear from these few that Frannie's voice is droll and a little wry, and quite worth spending time with.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Run, Don't Walk, to Get Your Hands on These!

I read three books over the past week that are the kind you finish with a groan because you don't want them to end. On top of that, they each end with, if not a cliffhanger, at least a heart-in-your-throat, what-happens-next question. Even worse, they're all the first book in the series, which means waiting months (I'm avoiding the y- word!) to find out. I'm absolutely positive it will be worth the wait, but it's going to be hard.

All of these rate 5Q 5P, Audience: J/S

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

In the Seven Kingdoms, there are those who are Graced, and they are marked by their eyes, which do not match. Graces vary. Perhaps the grace is knowing what someone will say, or perhaps it is the ability to tie knots. Some Graces are valuable, some are not. Some save lives. Some take lives.

Katsa discovered what her Grace was at the age of eight, when a relative made an improper advance and her instinctive response resulted in his death. Since then, her uncle, the king, has used her to teach a lesson to those who displease him. Those who are Graced have always made the non-Graced uncomfortable, but when one is Graced with the ability to kill, the discomfort turns to fear. Katsa's only friends are her cousin, her maid, and her trainer Giddon. Amost everyone else avoids even looking at her.

Katsa loathes her role as killer/enforcer to the King. She desperately wants to find a way to help people instead of hurt them. And so she creates the Council, a secret group of people determined to help those who have in some way been wronged. When the father of the king of Leinid is kidnapped, the Council tracks him down and Katsa rescues him. But who is behind the kidnapping, and why did s/he do it? Those questions are not so easily answered.

One person nearly foils Katsa's rescue, and that person comes looking for her. Is Prince Po, son of the Leinid king, a friend or a foe? Unsure of the answer, Katsa still joins with him on a quest to discover the truth behind the kidnapping. In all her years of training, only Po, Graced with combat skills, has ever come close to challenging her. His challenges don't come only on the training field. He challenges what she knows of herself and what she believes of herself. Is she really the cold killing machine she imagines herself to be? There are many discoveries ahead for Katsa, not least that she isn't as friendless and coldhearted as she imagined herself to be.

Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey

Told in two voices, this book is a book that will leave you gasping for air. The tension is that relentless. Sadima's story, told in third person, details a world in which magic has been forbidden and forgotten. Even so, those who can't afford real healers rely on fakes in times of need. Sadima's mother died giving birth to her with the aid of a "magician" who then stole the family's valuables and left newborn Sadima on the floor in her dead mother's arms. Understandably, Sadima's father and brother hate "magicians" and even the idea of magic. Sadima knows they will never believe her if she tells them the truth she's known since birth: she can communicate with animals. This bit of magic brings her to the attention of Somiss, a young nobleman who is determined to bring magic back to their world, and Franklin, his servant/friend. As soon as she is able, Sadima joins the young men. She dreams of being able to share her abilities freely, but she soon realizes that, as sympathetic and kind as Franklin is, he will always bow to his master, Somiss. And Somiss is not kind, and he is not sympathetic. His dedication to reviving magic is all-consuming and dangerous.

Hahp's first person description of a world in which magic now exists is chilling and unrelentingly grim. Though Franklin and Somiss dreamed of a time when magic would be used to help people, it is only the wealthy who seem to have access to it. Wizards have a fearsome reputation. Families who bring their sons to the wizard academy are told they will never see them again. Once the families leave, the boys learn why: in each class, only one student (if that) will become a wizard. The others will die. They are forbidden to help each other. Hahp learns to use the magic to get food, but will it be enough to keep him alive? His struggle isn't only physical. Can he bear watching the other boys slowly starve to death, knowing he could help them if only he dared?
The link between Sadima and Hahp slowly becomes clear, but both their stories are unresolved at the end. It was achingly hard to close the book and leave these two characters in their desperate straits behind.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Collins is well known for her Gregor the Overlander series for elementary and middle school students. The theme and level of violence in this book marks it for older readers (middle school and up).

Decades ago, the Districts rebelled against the Capitol. They've paid the price ever since, in the form of the Hunger Games. Every year, a boy and a girl between the ages of 12-18 from each of the twelve districts are brought to the Capitol to compete in the Hunger Games. This is Survivor for real. The players must outwit, outplay, and outlast the other twenty-three players, because this is a duel to the death. The entire country watches every move the players make. The Game creators manipulate every facet of the game to make it more exciting for the viewers. The uglier the kills, the better. The Game is brutal, and players do what they must in order to make sure they're the one to survive. Katniss and Peeta are District 12's contestants.

Katniss has years of experience hunting to feed her family. She's confident she can survive, at least for a while. Peeta is the baker's son. He's got the survival skills of a newborn kitten. Katniss doesn't know Peeta well, but she owes him: he once saved her family from starvation. And Peeta...well, Peeta had his reasons for giving Katniss the bread that day, even though it earned him a beating. He is willing to endure much more for Katniss. How can they kill each other? And yet, they must. First, though, the other twenty-two players have to die. What then?

Friday, October 03, 2008

Book of the Living Dead

Generation Dead by Daniel Waters
3Q 4P; Audience: J/S

It's not usually much of an issue if a new kid wants to join the school football team. He just tries out with all the other aspirants, and if makes the team, great. If he doesn't, no harm done. But at Oakvale High, it's not so cut-and-dried. It's complicated when the kid who tries out for the team is differently biotic. Living impaired. Dead.

There's a new phenomenon sweeping the country. Teens are dying and then reanimating. Nobody knows how and nobody knows why. This is not a horror movie come to life. The dead kids aren't flesh-eating zombies. They do most of the same things they did when they were alive. They think, communicate, and reason. They even go to school. Most of them just do it all much more slowly than the living do. A few, like Karen and Tommy, are much more animated and process things more quickly and clearly. When Tommy tries out for the football team, it's not just because he wants to play ball. He wants dead kids to be accepted into society, and he figures that taking part in things like the football team will help bring that to pass. But he knows it will be a long process, not something that happens overnight (think the Civil Rights Movement). He's right. The reactions to Tommy's decision are mostly negative. The coach wants him off the team at any cost, and Pete and his crew are only too happy to oblige. They hit Tommy hard, often, and as dirtily as they can in an effort to permanently disable him. Tommy doesn't crumble. If a living kid could take hits the way Tommy does, he'd be the star of the team. But Tommy's dead, and nothing makes him acceptable to people like the coach and Pete. Fortunately, not everyone feels the way they do. Adam, who used to be in Pete's crew, admires Tommy. It takes guts to do what he's doing. And Phoebe...Phoebe doesn't quite know why, but she's finding herself strangely attracted to him. It's not that she's into dead guys. He's just...interesting. And brave. She enjoys spending time with him. The feeling is mutual.

The dynamics between Tommy, Phoebe, Adam, and Pete drive the book. Old friendships are changing, breaking up, getting deeper, getting complicated. Past relationships color present ones and create dangerous tensions as new relationships are formed and observed. There are some people who just can't abide the thought of the dead freely mixing with the living. And they aren't going to stand idly by and let it happen. And that is not good news for Tommy and Phoebe and Adam.


I enjoyed this book, but not as much as I expected to. Waters teases his readers with things he doesn't deliver. I don't know if that's on purpose (leaving room for a sequel, maybe?) or if he and his editor just lost track of things. But are the white van sightings significant or not? Is everything on the up-and-up at the Hunter Foundation, the group that claims they want to help integrate the dead into society? There's more than one hint that the answer is no, but there's no follow-through. I also felt the lack of any explanation as to who comes back from the dead and why. ONLY teens in the United States come back? That seems far too contrived to me. I also frankly needed to see something of Pete's relationship with Julie in order to believe it really existed in anything other than his own head. He was the one character who felt over the top. As a result, I found Pete just a psycho teen, and that made the book less effective for me.

On the other hand, Phoebe, Adam, and Tommy in particular all felt like real, three-dimensional people. Waters made me care about them as well as admire them. I also appreciated that he didn't go for the goth=angst-ridden/angry/depressed stereotype. The dynamic between the three worked for me as well. I felt for Adam! It's got to be pretty tough on a guy to know that your crush prefers a dead (sorry, "differently biotic") guy to you. I wonder, though, why Waters made such a point to tell us that Adam was a bit of a jerk before he took karate lessons but never showed us anything that proved it. I wish we'd met his karate instructor at some point, too. He's obviously been an important figure in Adam's life lately. I kept expecting Adam to want to talk to him about some of the things he's trying to deal with, but it never happened.

I'm not completely con/vinced that Waters knew what kind of a book he wanted to write, but it was still an enjoyable read. And although the metaphor for the Civil Rights/Gay Rights movement isn't exactly subtle, the book offers food for thought as well.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Reading Roundup, Part Three

I just finished reading Dragon Heir by Cindy Williams Chima. Most of you probably know that it's the third book in the Heir trilogy. What you're hoping to hear is that it was worth waiting for. I'm happy to say that it is. I confess it took me a little while to get back up to speed, since my recollection of all the people and events in Wizard Heir was slightly fuzzy. But Chima gives enough background on past events that I was eventually reminded of all the important bits. Still, you'll want to start reading this series at the beginning, with Warrior Heir, rather than jumping in at the end. While I was never in much doubt about the identity of the dragon heir, that never affected my enjoyment of the book. I'm probably in the minority in choosing it, but my favorite moment in this book occurs at the end, when a minor character does something immensely satisfying, both for me and, I'm sure, for her. I basically did a fist pump, grinned, and said, "Take that, you (ummm...fiend will have to do here)!" Though some readers may start to get antsy waiting for Jack and Ellen to do their stuff, I think they'll be satisfied when it happens. There's also a revelation at the end that I didn't expect. I think I'd find it quite interesting to read the books again with that knowledge. In terms of rating, I'm leaning on the plus side of 4, so 5Q 5P, Audience of M/J/S.

I also recently finished Beastly by Alix Flinn. It's an updated retelling of Beauty and the Beast. I liked this one, but I didn't love it. I prefer Flinn's grittier stuff. Kyle Kingsbury is the very handsome, very rich son of a very handsome, very rich, very inattentive (at best) father who has taught him that it's more important to be good looking and successful than it is to be kind or thoughtful. Consequently, Kyle is beastly to anyone he perceives as being inferior (and that's a lot of people). When he invites an unattractive girl to a school dance with the sole intention of standing her up and making her look foolish, she transforms him into the beast he's always been on the inside. He has two years to get someone to fall in love with him and break the spell. In the meantime, his father virtually abandons him, buying him his own building far away in Brooklyn and putting him in the care of an old servant and a blind tutor. Kyle occupies his time by building a greenhouse and growing roses. In a strange way, it is the greenhouse and roses that ultimately provide Kyle with his potential Beauty.

What worked for me:
  • the chat room conversations, where Kyle (as BeastNYC) shares his problems with similarly challenged teens, such as Silent Maid (a mermaid who has fallen in love with a human) and Froggie, who used to be a prince, all led by counselor Chris Anderson (but, DUH! I missed the significance of that name at first)
  • Kyle before transformation - thoroughly nasty and quite memorable
  • Kyle's interactions with his tutor
  • Kyle's manipulations of his father, post-transformation
  • Parts of the "Lindy needs me" section (great action and energy)

What didn't work for me as well:

  • Kyle's voice seemed less authentic to me after his transformation and acceptance of the reason for it. He's suddenly very mature and introspective, and I needed to see him grow into that more.
  • The deal with Lindy's father.
  • The rather heavy-handed way it got to the uh-oh, stroke of midnight point.
  • Parts of the "Lindy needs me" section (a little sappy, a little forced)
Overall, I think this will please fans of fairy tale retellings and romance novels. Rating: 3Q 3P; Audience: J

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Big Brother Is Watching You...What Are You Going to Do About It?

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
4Q 4P? Audience: J/S/Adult

This book won't be everyone's cup of tea, but for readers who are politically-minded and/or love technology and intrigue, it's ::ahem:: the bomb. It is certainly a book cause he won't give up his email passwords. Because he can't believe that the Constitution of the United States no longer protects him.

When Marcus is let out of prison a few days later, he leaves behind one good friend and most of his illusions. He barely recognizes the world he steps into. His laptop has been bugged. The government is tracking people through their debit cards and arphids encoded into transit system passes, so it knows exactly what people are buying and when and where they traveled. Closed circuit cameras are installed in classrooms, businesses, and on public streets. If more than three or four people gather together, the police force them to disperse. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has turned San Francisco into a police state.

Marcus isn't about to lose his civil liberties without a fight. What can one kid do? When you're as smart as Marcus, as technically proficient as Marcus, as scared as Marcus, and as determined as Marcus, you can do plenty. He creates Xnet, an underground computer society that the government can't monitor. Through Xnet, dozens of small acts of rebellion are launched, ranging from simple debates over government policies to disseminating instructions on how to disable arphids so the activities of innocent people can't be tracked. They plan peaceful protest gatherings. And they simply chat, game, and develop friendships and solidarity. When crisis time comes, Marcus is awed by just how powerful his movement has become. The government isn't awed. It's angry. In this battle, who has the stronger army, Marcus or Homeland Security?


As I read and after I finished the book, I wondered just how much of the technology that Doctorow describes really exists. That's surely a sign of hooking the reader's imagination and interest. My web surfing proved that I was not the only one to be intrigued, but these guys aren't just wondering. They actually hope to create the Paranoid Linux operating system. Talk about a book making an impact on a reader!(In the book, Paranoid Linux is described thusly:)

*Paranoid Linux is an operating system that assumes that its operator is under assault from the government (it was intended for use by Chinese and Syrian dissidents), and it does everything it can to keep your communications and documents a secret. It even throws up a bunch of "chaff" communications that are supposed to disguise the fact that you're doing anything covert. So while you're receiving a political message one character at a time, ParanoidLinux is pretending to surf the Web and fill in questionnaires and flirt in chat-rooms. Meanwhile, one in every five hundred characters you receive is your real message, a needle buried in a huge haystack.
~Cory Doctorow (Little Brother, 2008)

Doctorow's writing is somewhat uneven. There are some gripping scenes. For instance, Marcus's terror is visceral when he begins to comprehend just how different a government interrogation is from being called to the principal's office. He can't bluff his way out of this, and brashness only makes things worse. Reading this section made me realize just how easily one can be reduced to feeling powerless and too afraid to fight back. However, he occasionally gets too technical, slowing down the narrative. He also repeats himself fairly frequently. I was caught up in the story enough that neither problem stopped me from wanting to read more, but less patient readers may not be able to overlook them as easily. Doctorow also stacks the deck by making almost every character on the side of Homeland Security one-dimensional cardboard villains. I can't help wondering if that's the mark of an overly confident author or one who isn't confident enough.

With questions to debate such as
  • Do we sometimes need to give up some freedoms for the sake of a larger goal?
  • At what point does civil disobedience become terrorism?
  • Is Doctorow too extreme?
  • Whether Andrew Huang's afterword on the virtues of computer hacking has merit
this book is an excellent choice for classrooms and book discussion groups.

If you like this book, you might also enjoy Hacking Harvard by Robin Wasserman. The setup: Can three accomplished hackers get a totally unqualified student accepted to Harvard? The stakes are high (higher than some of them know), but if they can pull this off, it'll be one of the greatest hacks in history. I recommend it to readers in high school and beyond.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Reading Roundup, Part Two

Here are a couple of books I had high hopes for when I started them. Unfortunately, I think neither of them quite holds up to their early promise. But your mileage may vary.

The Chaos Code by Justin Richards
3Q 3P; Audience: M/J

When Matt Stribling's mother breaks the news to him that he's going to be spending his vacation with his father, rather than at home with her, he's not happy. His dad is a nice guy, but he's so busy with his archaeological work that he barely pays attention to Matt. Sure enough, when Matt arrives at the train station, Dad's not there. But Dad's not at home, either, and little by little, Matt comes to the conclusion that something is seriously wrong. Maybe it's the mess (but Dad's place is always a mess). Maybe it's the sandy footprints leading through Dad's office and out onto the lawn. Maybe it's the rough, sandy fingers he feels closing over his face and cutting off his air until he passes out. Or maybe it's the missing mail that was on the floor when he arrived and wasn't there just a few hours later. Or maybe it's the coded letter from his father, telling him to go to his Aunt Jane's and to worry if he doesn't hear from him soon. Or maybe it's all of the above.

When Matt heads to his Aunt Jane's, he has no idea that he will soon be meeting some of the richest and most ruthless men in the world, or that he will soon be swept up in an adventure that will find him in remote jungles and ancient pyramids, and threatened by advanced technology he couldn't have imagined existed. He isn't facing these things alone, of course. Aunt Jane works for multimillionaire collector Julius Venture, and Venture has a daughter, Robin. They are just the kind of people you want on your side when things get tense. But that doesn't mean that Venture and Robin don't have significant secrets of their own. Can Matt and Robin stop what seems inevitable? They hope so, because the fate of the entire world depends on their doing just that.

I was hoping that the book would continue in the same vein in which it started, with Matt having to decode various puzzles and clues as he gets closer and closer to discovering what happened to his father. Instead, the book is more of a cat-and-mouse game, with lots of action (which is a good thing) and chases. But I felt the whys and hows of what was going on got muddled. It felt as though the author hoped that if he threw enough things into the pot, his readers wouldn't really notice that the recipe isn't quite as filling as it ought to be. I had a few too many "Didn't you already say that?" and "I didn't quite get what you were going for there" moments as I read. I'd also have appreciated a more nuanced villain and fewer lucky coincidences. But perhaps that's just me. Readers who like a lot of action and suspense may not care or notice those things as much as I did.

Bunker 10 by J. A. Henderson
3Q 3P; Audience: J

At 2000 hours on Monday, 24 December 2007, Pinewood Military Installation exploded. The blast ripped apart acres of forest and devastated the remote highland valley where the base was located. There were no survivors and no official cause was given for the incident. Inside Pinewood were 185 male and female military personnel -- a mix of scientists and soldiers. There were also 7 children. This is the story of their last day.

Okay, a story can't open with much more of a grabber than that.

Pinewood is a secret military installation. Very few people know what goes on there, and even fewer people know that the seven children in the installation aren't ordinary kids. Each of them is a genius, and each has an ability that the army prizes highly. As a result, they have each been conned, coerced, or invited to work at Pinewood, with the understanding that they will join the military when they turn eighteen. In the meantime, they study, work on their own special projects (time travel is a big draw), and follow the dictates of those in command. Those officers haven't gone out of their way to make the school particularly comfortable or welcoming to the kids. That they aren't allowed to go home for Christmas is a pretty good indication that their choice to come to Pinewood wasn't the best decision they ever made. The rules are strict, the barracks are barren, and their life is about their studies. Given the situation, it's not surprising that a couple of the kids are ready to break loose. All Jimmy and Leslie want is go on a simple date. Off campus. It's all fairly innocent, really, as far as treason goes.

Getting off the base involves jamming signals and locks (for these kids, that's child's play) and otherwise deceiving their military guards. What Jimmy, Lesley, and the other kids don't realize is that they aren't the only ones who have secret plans. Messing around with the security system might not have been such a great idea. The plans of the others are potentially a whole lot deadlier than sneaking out for a date.

Lieutenant Dunwoody and his special teams force are on their way to Pinewood. All Dunwoody knows is that he is being sent to a facility that specializes in advanced virtual reality technology (all the better to train soldiers in combat techniques) as well as things like three-dimensional mapping, biohazards, and alternative fuel resources. But those are not his concern. His concern is whatever is in the lower levels of Pinewood, an area so highly classified that nobody will tell him what it is he's about to encounter.

The third group prowling around Pinewood this Christmas Eve consists of Sherman, a virtual reality simulation specialist who works for the military; Madrid, a tall, athletic woman sent from High Command; Darren, a computers and electronics whiz kid; and Nulce. What does Nulce do? He kills people.

While Jimmy, Lesley, and the other kids are concentrating on their date, Dunwoody and Sherman's teams are about to learn about Bunker 10. What's in the super-secret Bunker 10? May-Rose. May-Rose used to be just one of the kids. Not anymore. May-Rose has...evolved. And if she breaks out of Bunker 10, the world is going to regret it. She must be stopped at all costs. At any cost.

Believe me, the costs are high (as if you couldn't tell, given how the book begins). This is a book for readers who like gore, violence, and mayhem. It also requires readers who have the patience for discussions about time travel, virtual reality, genetic manipulation and the like, as well as the ability to follow several storylines at once. One of the storylines has a neat little twist/premise that I don't want to spoil. Suffice it to say that it will leave you wondering what's really going on. Some readers will like that. Some won't. One aspect of the book that I found problematical was a mention that each of the kids in the story supposedly have the traits of various despots of the past. I spent a fair amount of time trying to identify those traits and looking for similarities with Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc., but I wasn't successful. It bothered me that that was presented but not (or poorly) followed through. If it wasn't important to the story, why mention it? (I do have a guess about that, but I don't like that answer.) If it was important, why wasn't it more developed? I was bothered even more (because it's constant) by the jive talking of Dave, one of the teens. I found it utterly unconvincing and increasingly irritating. I'm sure it was an attempt to individualize him, but the end result for me was a character that seemed fake rather than authentic. Other characters, including Lesley, May-Rose, and the colonel, are either barely developed or essentially play the same note throughout. Characterization is not the strong point of this novel.

Ultimately, I found Bunker 10 disappointing. It has an intriguing premise and a terrific start. Henderson is excellent at ratcheting up the tension and keeping the action going. But I found the parts more coherent than the whole, with the "what it's all about" ultimately confusing and unconvincing. However, readers who like a thrill ride of a read may be willing to overlook things that I could not.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

As the Cassons Go Rolling Along (aka Rosy Pose Makes Me Laugh)

I'm not doing a proper blog entry on this book because (in our library, anyhow), it's not YA. But Hilary McKay's books about the Casson family are so much fun that it would be a shame for people to miss them just because of that. I really shouldn't quote from Forever Rose because it's the fifth (last? I hope not, but maybe) book in the series, and you really must read them in order, starting with Saffy's Angel. But I'm going to anyhow. But first, the cast of characters:

  1. Bill (Rose's father) has been living in London for the past three books. I don't like him much, but I think he's trying to redeem himself in this book.
  2. Rose's mother is an artist (though Bill says what she does isn't Art - just one more reason not to like him!) and a bit vague about an awful lot of things. Such as her children.
  3. Caddy is the eldest. Much has been written about Caddy's love life. Caddy is lovely and sweet, but she's an idiot when it comes to love.
  4. Saffy is Rose's sister/cousin. Very competent and intelligent and very down to earth, which is pretty much how you know she's not a full-on Casson. :)
  5. Indigo is Rose's brother. Once meek and bullied, Indigo has come a long way.
  6. Rose is Rose is Rose. Artistic, stubborn, independent, fiercely loving, unknowingly funny, and a keen observer. Age 11, but only chronologically.
  7. Sarah, David, Tom: all friends of the family who might as well be family.
  8. Molly and Kiran: Rose's friends, who are a bit more level-headed than she. Even if Molly does convince them to spend the night at the Zoo so that nobody will think she's boring.
  9. Michael. See #3

This is how Rose observes the world:

School is no longer a peaceful place where you can catch up on your daydreaming, forget your family (or what is left of your family), and talk about things like Dr. Who and how to stop Global Warming (we all know how but we don't stop it) and if it is okay for boys to wear pink and all those other things we talk about. School, says Mr. Spencer, is an educational establishment...These new ideas do not stay in my head very well, they drift away and before I know it I am back in the good-old-days ways, staring out the window. (p.1)

But Mr. Spencer, who had swung round from the board to shout at me, turned his back in a very deliberate way and carried on writing. "I wasn't doing anything!" I protested to his back, because we have learned to put up with Mr. Spencer's bad manners here in Class 6. (p. 3)

(Rose, seeing David approaching the house, hides behind the couch instead of letting him in. But David comes in anyhow. He sits on the couch and begins to cry.) What a strange thing to do, to go to someone's house, and sit in an empty room that is not yours, and make such a noise. I crawled out to have a look. Poor David. His face was in his dripping hands. He was crying and rubbing away tears, but not as fast as they poured down his big red cheeks. Poor poor David. I tried very hard to make myself care as much as I should. It was very difficult, because he looked such a mess...I moved my favorite green cushion out of reach of the flood. (pp. 41-42.)

...I was able to get rid of the guilt by giving (David) a handkerchief with a pink rose in the corner to use to dab his eyes (I have a whole lot of rose handkerchiefs that I keep specially for crying with. I like to cry on something proper. It feels so sad and interesting, dabbing your eyes on a real white hanky. But they are no good for noses.) I gave David the downstairs toilet roll for his nose (Economy Peach). (p. 46)

(Rose, Molly, and Kiran are spending the night at the zoo. They have brought along a very thick book by naturalist David Attenborough.) I wished I knew where a tiger's weak point was. I asked Molly, as casually as I could, because I didn't want to frighten her, if she happened to have any idea. Molly said she thought she had read somewhere that they have very sensitive digestions.
This means that if there is a tiger on the loose I am going to have to make him
David Attenborough.
If you ask me
It's about time someone did. (pp. 215-216)

Also in fairy stories there are hardly any of those half-good half-bad people who crop up so constantly in real life and are so hard to believe in. (p. 246)

Tonight is the school Nativity play performed by Class 1 with an awful lot of help from the rest of the world because Class 1 can do nothing unaided. Mary and Joseph are the worst of the lot. If the real Mary and Joseph were anything like our Mary and Joseph there would be no Christmas because Christianity would have got no further than a big fight over who got the donkey somewhere along the road to Bethlehem. (p. 257)

If any of that struck you as funny, there's a whole lot more where that came from. At the same time, the Casson series isn't just funny. The Cassons deal with some real issues (divorce, bullying, adoption, love, children alienated from their families), sometimes with more bluntness than I expect (which may be one reason that some libraries place them in their YA area), but always with great heart. Honestly, you're missing something if you haven't read a Hilary McKay book.

My personal feeling, despite where they are placed in my library, is that the audience for this series is grades 5-8 and any discerning adult readers who aren't foolish enough to believe that they're too old for them.